Learning and Society in Ireland before the Norman Conquest

J.J.N. McGurk describes how, between the coming of St. Patrick and the arrival of the Normans art, literature and religion flourished in a country that had no organised central government.

The South Cross at Castledermot, Co. Kildare, from the west side.
The South Cross at Castledermot, Co. Kildare, from the west side.
Irish saga and myth have always attracted the scholar of antiquity; for they incorporate a tradition unique in Europe. In Irish story-telling he finds something that requires neither logic nor realism, but a collection of wild imaginative themes, before which the head must be ruled by the heart. Our knowledge of Irish story-telling comes mainly from manuscript versions of the tales; yet there can be little doubt that the Gaelic narrative tradition was essentially oral.

This was universal until the middle of the seventh century. Sgealaighe—modern Irish for story-teller—arouses thoughts of the unlettered fisherman or peasant telling yarns by the cottage fireside. To the ninth-century author of the Exile of the Sons of Uisliu, or to the later author of the poem on Gressach, the word would have had more aristocratic associations. The story-teller, for instance, in the first-named work is represented as entertaining princes and as having a daughter Deirdre, the Helen of Ireland, a fit consort for a king.

It may be concluded from references in literary texts, from the different social grades of story-tellers, and from the ascending scale of story-tellers still to be noticed in Gaelic speaking districts, that ancient Ireland had a whole hierarchy, ranging from the humble narrator of folktales to the fili, who was poet, seer, historian, and very often musician as well. A text in eighth-century Irish, for example, informs us that Mongan, son of Fiachna, an eastern Ulster King who died about A.D. 625, was told a story by Forgoll, his fili, every winter night between Samuin to Beltaine, that is to say, between November 1st and May 1st.

Great reverence always accompanied the learned man; and in pagan Ireland the fili and the brehon occupied the highest rank in the social hierarchy. The brehons were not judges; but it was in their charge to safeguard, develop, and interpret the laws; the legal maxims to which they adhered were laid down in the brehon laws. The body of law was revised after the conversion of the nation to Christianity; and the revised code was called Senchus Mor, or great collection of antiquities.

Irish scribes of all periods have tended to record in their manuscripts only the lore of whatever happened to be the more learned class of their day. The fili in real life told his tales at their best—after all, he had been trained for about eight years to narrate the chief stories of Ireland to kings, lords and noblemen—in the fairs, where, under the patronage of the King and the sanction of age-old custom, the arts of the Irish appeared to have received their fullest expression.

Ireland was unquestionably a land of kings: The Book of Rights, compiled about the year A.D. 900, enumerates from ninety to a hundred petty kings. In the days of pagan Ireland the country was divided into five large states, called “the five fifths of Ireland”; but by the beginning of the Christian era, this pentarchy had become a heptarchy. The seven divisions were as follows; Ailech, Airgialla and Ulaid, these three covering an area slightly less than the modern six counties, partitioned out of the ancient Ulster; Mide (Meath) and Laigin, these two equivalent to modern Leinster; Mumu, the present Munster; and, finally, Connaught.

Each of these seven great divisions was ruled by a king, and each was subdivided into a large number of petty tuatha, or kingdoms—the territory of each corresponding to a modern barony. Again, between the petty kinglets of the tuatha and the “Big Five”, there were others of intermediate rank, each of whom had under him several kings—three at least. And, above all the kingdoms of the island was the High King (Ard Ri); Niall of the Nine Hostages, for example, was High King just before the coming of Patrick.

Much controversial ink has been spilled over the position of the High King; but it is certain that his authority was a real one, and not merely in his own province; for he could exact homage, rents, tithes and hostages from his subordinates; and he had an effective way of doing this through invasion and division of the conquered territory among the more amenable of his barons. To appreciate the unifying position of the Ard Ri, it is sufficient to recognise that the ancient system of brehon law had its apex in his own person.

Each king in his tuatha presided over the cases in his country; the provincial or Big Five ruled over the tuatha kings; the High King judged the provincials; and the High King’s brehon, or wise man of law, was the supreme jurisprudent for the entire country. Still, as in France, the chief strength of the High King lay in his royal demesne; and, just as the House of Alfred established a connection with Canterbury to strengthen its position, so, too, when Ireland turned Christian, did Brian Boru establish firm relations with the ancient see of St. Patrick’s in Armagh.

Kingship, and indeed all chiefly office, was achieved by election of the great locals, lay and spiritual; but with the provincial kings it was made within close kinship. The early medieval Irish king, like his counterparts in England and France, legislated and governed with the advice of his “barons”; but there was a difference.

In England, the barons were magnates of no great antiquity, and often enemies to the peoples they ruled—moreover, it was possible for the king to depose them; in Ireland, the king’s barons were heads of powerful families, allied to him by ties of blood and associated with popular choice within the tuatha that they ruled. Genealogies became vastly important; for not only could they prove a man’s ancient and noble descent, but also his claim to land. The whole hierarchy of class was based on blood relationships.

Detail of the Petrie crown named after the Irish antiquary and painter, George Petrie
Detail of the Petrie crown named after the Irish antiquary and painter, George Petrie. From 'L'Art Islandais'

The cycle of king tales, from the heroic cycle of stories, shows an interest not primarily in heroics, but in matters of importance for the community: the origins of peoples, and of dynasties, anecdotes about famous members of a dynasty, accounts of battles that changed or determined the course of history, or of incidents explaining some custom; yet in the telling there is much of heroic grandeur and savagery. Here is a typical anecdote:

“Eochu Mugmedon was King of Ireland. Aed asked him which of his sons would be King. ‘I do not know’, said he, ‘till a smithy be burnt over their heads’. There upon a smithy was burnt. Brion, the eldest of the sons seized the chariot and all its harness. Fiachra seized the wine vat. Ailill seized all the weapons. Fergus seized the pile of dry wood. Niall seized all the smith’s tools, including the bellows, the hammers and the anvil with its block. ‘Truly’, said Eochu, ‘Niall shall be their King, and his brothers shall serve him’”.1

 It was this Niall who established the power of the dynasty that uninterruptedly ruled in Tara from the beginning of the fifth century to the deposition of Mael Shechlainn by Brian Boru in the year 1002. Brian was the first of his family to reach that position of high honour. His accession was revolutionary; for it marked the end of a dark and unhappy period in Irish history—that of the Viking conquests, in which the monasteries, the centres of civilised life, were constantly plundered and burned, not infrequently by the Irish kings themselves.

All the High Kings and the kings or princes of the provinces could trace their descent from Adam and Eve, naming any ancestor in any generation. They knew the names of all the races that inhabited Ireland before themselves, and also that their own race had come from Spain. They even knew the full details of the migration.

And, more especially, they knew to the last detail the history of the making of Ireland; who felled the first tree, who ploughed the first furrow, and who reared the first herd of cattle. Their knowledge was full of colour and detail; and so long as the Celtic language survived—as it did in remote parts until the eighteenth century—this precise and picturesque knowledge satisfied the curious about both past and present.

Much has been written about the nature and the temperament of the Celtic race. Ancient writers accuse the Britons, the Caledonians and the Irish of polygamy, community of wives and incest. Others condemn their kings as gluttonous, quarrelsome, thieves and debauchers. Others, again, reported that it was customary for the kings on circuit to enjoy the wives of their hosts, and even describe cannibalistic orgies. When all due allowances have been made for prejudice and exaggeration, it remains certain that the Scotti, as all early medieval Latin writers called the Irish, were extremely bellicose; even their women took part in hostilities.

It was not until the end of the seventh century, we read, that Adamnan, the Abbot of Iona, is reputed to have got exemption from military service for Irish women. In assemblies, banquets, processions, the Celt was very scrupulous about precedence and etiquette. At a feast, for example, the right to carve was reserved for the most valiant, that is, for him who had cut off the largest number of human heads. Then the guests at the table would enumerate his bloody deeds; heated disputes would follow; and the entire festivity would end in further bloodshed.

Yet the Celt had more agreeable traits—a love of music, poetry and gaily coloured clothes, a penchant for fables, riddles, symbols and the practices of a naturalistic religion. In the time of St. Patrick, we find the Irish paying divine honours, and making offerings, to fountains, yew trees, oak and ash and boundary stones. The work of the archaeologists has unearthed here and there traces of sun-worship, but of none of the rites associated with Mithras, whose cult was imported from the East by Roman legionaries, such as have been found in Britain.

The Romans, of course, never launched a military attack on Ireland. But coin hoards have been found that point to some trading contacts; and we have the evidence of Tacitus: It is not surprising, then, that no traces of Roman worship have been found in Ireland. Patrick in his Confessio, a work now declared authentic by scholars, alludes to the practice of sun-worship, a feature of Druidism that may be traced back to the non-Celtic peoples whom the Celts conquered: “On May 1st the Celts celebrated the solar festival of Beltane by lighting great fires and dancing around them”.

The history of Patrick himself is still obscure. Traditions and legends are multitudinous in the collections made by pious writers of the eighth century; but fifth-century records are meagre, and so obscure that the date of his arrival, the part he played in evangelising the nation, and the date of his death, are all matters of dispute. The late Professor T. F. O’Rahilly held the view that there were two Patricks, each working for about thirty years as a missionary in Ireland; the elder known as Balladius died in 461; and the younger was Patrick the Briton, who arrived about the time of Palladius’s death and died in 493.

Prosper of Aquitaine asserts that, in A.D. 431, Pope St. Celestine sent to the Scots “who believed in Christ”—ad Scottos in Christum credentes—their first Bishop, Palladius, and the fact that a Bishop was sent from Rome suggests that there existed in Ireland Christian communities of some importance. It is with the midland, the north and the west, that the name of Patrick is especially associated in tradition; yet the same tradition is quite clear in attributing to him the main effort in the conversion of the island.

Not all the Irish kings accepted the faith from Patrick —Loiguire, the High King, among others remained pagan; but there was little opposition from the political powers to his work. Patrick himself speaks of the countless numbers of converts; and many of the petty kings are recorded as having granted land for the building of churches. No fifth-century church has survived.

A good many historians have sought to represent Christianity as having made easy way among the Celts, thanks to the accommodating nature of the missionaries, who were not unduly disturbed by the remnants of pagan practices that mingled freely with Christian belief. But Patrick did not compromise with paganism, though he respected Irish customs. The oldest text that mentions Patrick is the Latin hymn attributed to Secundinus (Sechnall), one of his followers, which was composed perhaps as early as the fifth century.

In the Antiphonary of Bangor, in which Sechnall's hymn is inserted, Patrick is described as Magister Scottorum. In the Stowe Missal, compiled during the first decade of the ninth century—the Saint’s name is mentioned no less than four times. And there are many other references to the Saint in hagiographies and early Liturgies.

It is easy to forget, amid the exuberance of monastic life and institutions after Patrick’s time, that the Church he organised was not in the least monastic. The centres of ecclesiastical rule were known as “cities”, by analogy with the Roman Civitates, the Bishop’s seats everywhere else in Christendom. It must also be remembered that Patrick had helpers of different nationalities; an eighth-century text Catalogue of the Saints of Ireland mentions Romans, Britons and Scots.

“Saint”, in view of the later ritual of canonization, is a rather loose term; for in the early days it simply meant “holy man”, being a translation of the Latin sanctus. Armagh, Downpatrick, Saul, and Glastonbury have claimed Patrick’s remains. With more discretion, the Book of Armagh in the passage drawing a parallel between Moses and the Apostle of Ireland says: “Ubi sunt ossa eius nemo novit”.

No contemporary records survive concerning the progress of Christianity in the immediate post-Patrician period. Yet the traditional view of the period, to the mid-sixth century (A.D 544), is summarised by the eighth-century Catalogus already mentioned.

“The first order of Catholic saints was in the time of Patrick: and then they were all Bishops, distinguished and holy and full of the Holy Ghost, three-hundred-and-fifty in number, founders of churches. They had one head, Christ, and one Chief, Patrick. They had one Mass, one liturgy, one tonsure from ear to ear. They celebrated one Easter, on the 14th moon after the vernal equinox; and what was excommunicated by one Church all excommunicated.

They did not reject the service and society of women, because founded on the rock, Christ, they feared not the blast of temptation. This order of saints lasted for four reigns, viz: those of Loiguire, of Ailill Molt, of Lugaid, son of Loigure, and of Tuathal. All these Bishops are sprung from the Romans and Franks and Britons and Scots.”

Nothing survives of this pre-monastic Church. A multitude of legends surround the dark century—A.D. 460 to about 560; yet whatever lies behind them seems to have changed Ireland from a pagan Iron Age society to a Christian society, acquainted with Latin and possibly with Greek letters. Once the fifth-century barbarian invasions had cut off Ireland from the centres of Christendom, the country came under the influence of the western British Church. Many churchmen went to study in the monasteries of Candida Casa (Whithorn in Scotland) and especially to St. David’s in Wales.

The sixth century saw a vast growth of monasteries, and of monastic cells in desert places to which the Irish flocked; a revolution in the character of the Irish Church began. By the end of the sixth century, the Irish Church had become a Church of monks. Unlike their Egyptian prototypes, Irish monks valued letters; and, from its inception, the monastic movement was a missionary one.

Peregrinatio pro Dei amore—to leave one’s own, and live among strangers, seek “a solitude in the pathless sea” as Adamnan puts it—was regarded as the height of sacrifice. It may well have been this desire for penance in exile that drove the Irish monks to every land of Europe, to the Orkneys and to the shores of Lake Constance. The names of Columban, Fridolin, Kilian, Fiacra, Brendan are revered in France, Switzerland, Italy and Germany as much as they are in Ireland.

The quest for Christian perfection undoubtedly provided the impetus for the great expansion of Irish Christianity at the beginning of the seventh century; and the monasteries, incidentally as it were, became centres not only of prayer and penance but of learning. The learning was Latin—classical and late Roman; there is little evidence of the study of Greek. The same monastic schools attracted not only Irishmen but numerous students from other countries. Bede is full of references to travellers who visit Ireland in quest of learning:

“All these the Scots received kindly and cheerfully, giving them, not only their board and their learning free, but books also to learn in.”


The eagle, symbol of St. John, from the Book of Armagh now in Trinity College, Dublin.
The eagle, symbol of St. John, from the Book of Armagh now in Trinity College, Dublin.
In the scriptoria they copied everything; and old literature, derived from an oral pagan tradition, must have contained much that was not to the liking of the pious scribes; for scholars find that many texts have been edited, and their pagan content carefully suppressed. The twelfth-century scribe who diligently copied out Tain Bo Cuailgne (The Cattle Raid of Cooley), a major saga, added his own opinion at the end:

“But I who have written this history, or rather fable, am doubtful about many things in this history or fable. For some of them are the figments of demons, some of them poetic imaginings, some true, some not, some for the delight of fools”.

What was the life of the people outside the monastery? It was not, in the classical sense, civilized; yet it cannot be written off as merely barbaric. Irish society presented a contrast to Imperial Rome at almost every point. There were no towns nor cities nor villages of any size; therefore there was no central administration of law, no currency and no state. The primary unit of society was the family, on which public responsibility rested.

A number of family-groups made up the tuatha, a semi-independent political unit; and there were about a hundred such in Ireland, grouped into the Heptarchy. Society, as described in the Brehon laws, was rigidly stratified into grades or orders, each with its own privileges or duties. In practice, there were three: land-owning aristocracy (warriors), the serfs or commoners and the aes dana, which included the poets, jurists, physicians, historians and skilled craftsmen. Their status was not determined by birth; their learning or skill gave them permission to move anywhere and claim protection from the laws of other tuatha.

After the coming of Christianity, the clergy seem to have inherited some of the privileges of the aes dana. There was also a natural conflict between the churchmen and the custodians of the old learning. In Christian times the fili were still feared and respected, largely because of their much-dreaded gift of satire. By the sixth century, most of the clergy were Irish, with an inherited respect for their own traditions; and, when an attempt was made to banish the poets, they were saved by the intercession of St. Columcille.

In the ninth and tenth centuries Ireland did not escape the savagery of the Norse Invasions. Yet the Norsemen never achieved a complete conquest, thanks, no doubt, to the tribal nature of Irish society; there was never one capital, one nation, the conquest of which by an invader would have brought resistance to an end. Brian Boru’s massive victory in A.D. 1014 at Clontarf is generally regarded as the decisive check to Norse expansion in Western Europe.

Brian was remarkable in the Ireland of his time because he appears to have thought in terms of the feudal organization of Europe; he saw his own career as an image of that of Charlemagne. When he visited Armagh, the ecclesiastical capital, he had his scribe enter in the Book of Armagh: “Brian, Imperator Scottorum”.

The Norse remained important in Irish affairs, establishing the maritime towns—Dublin, Waterford, Limerick, among others—trading overseas, turning Christian, and by the eleventh century minting the first Irish coins. Finally., they became almost Irish in speech and habits. The first coins were issued by the authority of Sitric Silkenbeard (Sitric III), King of Dublin, and were copied from the silver pennies of Athelred III, King of Wessex (979-1016). After the fury of the Norsemen had passed, the work of rehabilitation went on apace.

Books were collected; abbots and kings prided themselves on having such great books as the Book of Leinster, into which scribes had gathered epics, histories, genealogies, excerpts from the classics and, above all, from the Scriptures. Metal-work in gold and bronze was revived; and it is from this period that we date such works of art as the Cross of Cong, the High Stone Scripture Crosses of Monasterboice, Kells, Donaghmore, Clones and Cashel. In architecture the Irish evolved a Romanesque style, of which the great example is Cormac’s Chapel at Cashel, which was widely imitated in the south-west.

But Irish masons, left to themselves, soon lost sight of the architectural features that had been introduced, and concentrated on elaboration of ornament. Before the next great wave of invasions from across the Irish sea, Ireland had a century-and-a-half of comparative peace, in which to revive her old civilization and achieve political unity. That she did not do so was the fault of her interminable divisions and the political squabbles of the kings.

On the social, political and economic trends in pre-Norman Ireland English and Irish historians hold as many conflicting views. Had Ireland perceived it, the need for union should have been clear from the situation abroad— Anglo-Saxon England had fallen before the Conqueror and his Normans. Yet, when solidarity should have been foremost, the island teemed with warring factions, engaged in a struggle for hegemony. The Norman invasion may be regarded as a climax to this struggle.

The rise of Dermot McMurrough, in the twelfth century, to the position of King of Leinster, if followed in all its confusing details, would give a picture of the anarchy that prevailed in pre-Norman Ireland. Likewise, the fortunes of Rory O’Connor, until he became High King in 1167, would provide an outline of a complicated system of alliances, a series of wars, counterwars and breaches of faith.

It was an unexpected event that ended Gaelic independence—the expulsion of McMurrough from his kingdom in 1166, not merely because he had carried off Devorgille, the wife of Tiernan O’Rourke, King of Breffni, as alleged by Giraldus Cambrensis and affirmed by the monastic annals of Clonmacnoise—popular imagination has heightened the personal cause—but because he was determined to recover his power, even at the cost of making a bargain with the adventurous knights of South Wales, who agreed to aid him in return for grants of land in Ireland.

Much earlier, in 1155, Pope Adrian IV, the only English Pope, by the so-called Bull Laudabiliter, around the authenticity of which controversy still rages, had given Henry II the signal to invade Ireland, and reform its Church and people. Whether the Bull is authentic or not, more important is the fact that genuine letters of Alexander III support Henry II’s Irish policy. In Ireland nothing appears to have been known of the matter; and no provision was made against English aggression.

The first contingent landed at Bannow Bay in County Wexford, defeated the Norse of the town and entrenched themselves in the first moat-and-bailey castle, of which the ramparts can still be traced, and then awaited reinforcements. The main body arrived in 1169, took Wexford, Waterford and Dublin, and, within a short time, overran the Midlands. The large army that Henry II brought over was meant less to impress the Irish than to make sure that Richard Strongbow, and his other recalcitrant barons, should not carve out kingdoms for themselves.

But Henry II did not win Ireland by the sword; despite initial success, the conquest was never complete. The author of the Gesta Henrici Secundi speaks of the opposition of Tyrone, Tyrconnell and Connaught. Characteristically, the Annals of the Four Masters fail to mention the submission made by most of the other rulers to Henry II. For the momentous year 1171, all the Annals have to say is simply this:

“The King of England, the second Henry,

Duke of Normandy and Aquitaine, Earl of

Anjou and Lord of many other lands, came to

Ireland this year.”

Before he left the country, Henry made certain territorial arrangements, largely to prevent Strongbow from becoming too strong; Meath was granted to Hugh de Lacy, and Waterford and Wexford to Robert FitzBernard; both were ordered to strengthen all their castles. Henry might have been well pleased with the general submission of both Church and State leaders; yet that submission was deceptive. The Irish kings were used to giving and breaking their word to the different High Kings; and now that their Ard Ri—for as such they understood the relationship to Henry II—was far away over the sea, their promises meant little.

Henry’s Norman barons were just as fickle; he had hardly landed in Wales when Raymond le Gros, not content with Carlow, attacked Cork in defiance of the rights of McCarthy, and went on to threaten Limerick. Soon Donal More O’Brien, the King of Thomond, came to the defence of Cork and inflicted a heavy defeat on the Normans at Thurles; the signal for a widespread resistance movement was given, and Giraldus with his customary exaggeration wrote “the whole people of Ireland revolted as one.”

Despite these successes, the Normans never really conquered the nation—the country could only be conquered tuatha by tuatha; and the invaders soon became involved in the complexities of Irish alliances and married into the families of native chieftains, thereby becoming absorbed into Irish society, learning to abide by Irish law and speak the Gaelic language. Only a thirty-mile radius around Dublin remained as a secure base for English law.

But, with the end of the High Kingship, Irish monasticism and Ireland’s political and cultural isolation came to an end. It was the most drastic change that occurred during the twelfth century.Thequestion of the state of the pre-Norman Church is closely tied up with the original motives of the conquest. Many ecclesiastical historians believe that, given time, the Irish Church might have completely thrown off those features of Celtic discipline that had survived the transition from Druidic ritualism to Christianity. Such an opportunity it was net allowed.

Rash as it may be to guess at Henry’s motives, could it not be that, in his invasion of Ireland, the King was primarily an opportunist? Whether he had a definite plan of conquest has not yet been quite decided. Irish events played into his hands. And was not Ireland a good place, in his view, for some of his more powerful barons, whose ambitions he had already trimmed and whose conquests in Ireland he did not permit to become too extensive?

Ireland, too, would be suitable provision for John Lackland. And did not the “unreformed” state of religion there give him a good chance to prove his good intentions to the Pope after the murder of Becket? At any rate, it provided shelter from the Papal legates, who were pursuing him with excommunication and interdict, until he was able to send positive proof of his intentions in the embassy he sent Alexander III.

Meanwhile, between the coming of Patrick and the arrival of the Normans, Ireland had illustrated the development, in literature, art and the Christian religion, of a barbarian people who had remained outside the boundaries of the Roman Empire.

It had shown that, without cities, without extensive trade or communications, without central organisation, without the trappings of the State, something approaching civilisation could flourish. Just as cogently, it shows that such a state of things could not last indefinitely. The full apparatus of the State was not to be implanted in Ireland until the bloody conquests of the nation in the later sixteenth century.

1 Zeitschrift fur celtische Philologie, Vol. VIII.

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